Articles

The origins of leather

The origins of leather

I have been working with leather and selling bags at Vintage Child for a few years now and I often ask myself if it is ethical. I am not a vegan, nor a vegetarian, but I do eat free range where I can and I like to know where my meat is coming from and if it is ethically sourced. Likewise with my leather I am vigilant at checking the origins and process to make sure the animals are not mistreated.

lather tag

To really answer this question I looked back to how leather was invented, the very first time leather was used and the relationship humans have with leather.

Leather goes back in history since primitive man went out to hunt and leather is documented to be one of mans first discoveries. Our ancestors found that the animals they hunted for food could also be utilised for their skins which were strong and resistant. The skins were rubbed with animal fat to preserve them and used to make clothing for warmth, shoes for protection and tents for shelter. This way nothing was wasted and as much of the animal as possible was used in a practical and effective way.

leather hides

It is believed that Egyptians invented an early form of vegetable tanning soaking skins in leaves and tree bark mixed with water, and hieroglyphics found in tombs from as early as 5000BC show leather being used for buckets, clothing, sandals and jewellery. Later on in around 800BC Romans were using leather for clothing and shoes as well as military equipment such as shields and saddles and harnesses for horses.

By around 500AD most medieval villages had tanneries located by rivers to ensure a continual water source, leather and its uses were becoming increasingly popular and thus leather products were also broadening.

Due to its tough and durable nature leather is an excellent material for making items that need to be hard wearing and endurable so during Tudor times in the 1500's people had started to develop leather into chairs, leather cases, wall hangings and carriages. Several of these items being found on the Mary Rose ship upon its recovery in 1984.

leather and suede

After that the development of leather progressed quickly to meet with the demand of such a long-lasting material. During the 18th and 19th centuries new processes were created to produce thinner, lighter, more durable leathers that were versatile and could be used for an ever growing product range.

Soon leather was being used for a huge range of clothing, accessories and furniture including bags, shoes, chairs, sofas, wash bags, cases and commercial uses in vehicles and aeroplanes. Leather has became an extremely popular material because of it's durability, traditional quality and ability to age well and it is also easily dyed to a variety of colours.

coloured leather swatches

So going back to my original question: is leather ethical? This is obviously a controversial subject, which many would say no to and I respect that, but when I looked back into how leather came about I found a deep history between humans and leather and the way our ancestors wasted no part of the animals they hunted. It is certainly a strong argument to say that, as a by product of the food industry, leather is a way to help to ensure the animal is used in a practice and constructive way.